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1.

Wastewater characteristics and


effluent quality parameters
1.1 Introduction
1.2 Characteristics of wastewaters
1.3 Quality parameters of importance in agricultural use of wastewaters

1.1 Introduction
In many arid and semi-arid countries water is becoming an increasingly scarce
resource and planners are forced to consider any sources of water which might be
used economically and effectively to promote further development. At the same time,
with population expanding at a high rate, the need for increased food production is
apparent. The potential for irrigation to raise both agricultural productivity and the
living standards of the rural poor has long been recognized. Irrigated agriculture
occupies approximately 17 percent of the world's total arable land but the production
from this land comprises about 34 percent of the world total. This potential is even
more pronounced in arid areas, such as the Near East Region, where only 30 percent
of the cultivated area is irrigated but it produces about 75 percent of the total
agricultural production. In this same region, more than 50 percent of the food
requirements are imported and the rate of increase in demand for food exceeds the
rate of increase in agricultural production.

Whenever good quality water is scarce, water of marginal quality will have to be
considered for use in agriculture. Although there is no universal definition of
'marginal quality' water, for all practical purposes it can be defined as water that
possesses certain characteristics which have the potential to cause problems when it is
used for an intended purpose. For example, brackish water is a marginal quality water
for agricultural use because of its high dissolved salt content, and municipal
wastewater is a marginal quality water because of the associated health hazards. From
the viewpoint of irrigation, use of a 'marginal' quality water requires more complex
management practices and more stringent monitoring procedures than when good
quality water is used. This publication deals with agricultural use of municipal
wastewater, which is primarily domestic sewage but possibly contains a proportion of
industrial effluents discharged to public sewers.

Expansion of urban populations and increased coverage of domestic water supply and
sewerage give rise to greater quantities of municipal wastewater. With the current
emphasis on environmental health and water pollution issues, there is an increasing
awareness of the need to dispose of these wastewaters safely and beneficially. Use of
wastewater in agriculture could be an important consideration when its disposal is
being planned in arid and semi-arid regions. However it should be realized that the
quantity of wastewater available in most countries will account for only a small
fraction of the total irrigation water requirements. Nevertheless, wastewater use will
result in the conservation of higher quality water and its use for purposes other than
irrigation. As the marginal cost of alternative supplies of good quality water will
usually be higher in water-short areas, it makes good sense to incorporate agricultural
reuse into water resources and land use planning.

Properly planned use of municipal wastewater alleviates surface water pollution


problems and not only conserves valuable water resources but also takes advantage of
the nutrients contained in sewage to grow crops. The availability of this additional
water near population centres will increase the choice of crops which farmers can
grow. The nitrogen and phosphorus content of sewage might reduce or eliminate the
requirements for commercial fertilizers. It is advantageous to consider effluent reuse
at the same time as wastewater collection, treatment and disposal are planned so that
sewerage system design can be optimized in terms of effluent transport and treatment
methods. The cost of transmission of effluent from inappropriately sited sewage
treatment plants to distant agricultural land is usually prohibitive. Additionally,
sewage treatment techniques for effluent discharge to surface waters may not always
be appropriate for agricultural use of the effluent.

Many countries have included wastewater reuse as an important dimension of water


resources planning. In the more arid areas of Australia and the USA wastewater is
used in agriculture, releasing high quality water supplies for potable use. Some
countries, for example the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and the Kingdom of Saudi
Arabia, have a national policy to reuse all treated wastewater effluents and have
already made considerable progress towards this end. In China, sewage use in
agriculture has developed rapidly since 1958 and now over 1.33 million hectares are
irrigated with sewage effluent. It is generally accepted that wastewater use in
agriculture is justified on agronomic and economic grounds (see Example 1) but care
must be taken to minimize adverse health and environmental impacts. The purpose of
this document is to provide countries with guidelines for wastewater use in agriculture
which will allow the practice to be adopted with complete health and environmental
security.

EXAMPLE 1 - AGRONOMIC AND ECONOMIC BENEFITS OF


WASTEWATER USE IN IRRIGATION

As an example, a city with a population of 500,000 and water consumption of 200 l/d
per person would produce approximately 85,000 m3/d (30 Mm³/year) of wastewater,
assuming 85% inflow to the public sewerage system. If treated wastewater effluent is
used in carefully controlled irrigation at an application rate of 5000 m3/ha.year, an area
of some 6000 ha could be irrigated. In addition to the economic benefit of the water, the
fertilizer value of the effluent is of importance. With typical concentrations of nutrients
in treated wastewater effluent from conventional sewage treatment processes as
follows:

Nitrogen (N) - 50 mg/l


Phosphorus(P) - 10 mg/l
Potassium (K) - 30 mg/l
and assuming an application rate of 5000 m3/ha.year, the fertilizer contribution of the
effluent would be:

N - 250 kg/ha. year


P - 50 kg/ha. year
K - 150 kg/ha. year

Thus, all of the nitrogen and much of the phosphorus and potassium normally required
for agricultural crop production would be supplied by the effluent. In addition, other
valuable micronutrients and the organic matter contained in the effluent will provide
additional benefits.

1.2 Characteristics of wastewaters


Municipal wastewater is mainly comprised of water (99.9%) together with relatively
small concentrations of suspended and dissolved organic and inorganic solids. Among
the organic substances present in sewage are carbohydrates, lignin, fats, soaps,
synthetic detergents, proteins and their decomposition products, as well as various
natural and synthetic organic chemicals from the process industries. Table 1 shows
the levels of the major constituents of strong, medium and weak domestic
wastewaters. In arid and semi-arid countries, water use is often fairly low and sewage
tends to be very strong, as indicated in Table 2 for Amman, Jordan, where water
consumption is 90 l/d per person.

Table 1: MAJOR CONSTITUENTS OF TYPICAL DOMESTIC WASTEWATER

Constituent Concentration, mg/l


Strong Medium Weak
Total solids 1200 700 350
1
Dissolved solids (TDS) 850 500 250
Suspended solids 350 200 100
Nitrogen (as N) 85 40 20
Phosphorus (as P) 20 10 6
1
Chloride 100 50 30
Alkalinity (as CaCO3) 200 100 50
Grease 150 100 50
2
BOD5 300 200 100
1
The amounts of TDS and chloride should be increased by the concentrations of these
constituents in the carriage water.
2
BOD5 is the biochemical oxygen demand at 20°C over 5 days and is a measure of
the biodegradable organic matter in the wastewater.

Source: UN Department of Technical Cooperation for Development (1985)


Municipal wastewater also contains a variety of inorganic substances from domestic
and industrial sources (see Table 3), including a number of potentially toxic elements
such as arsenic, cadmium, chromium, copper, lead, mercury, zinc, etc. Even if toxic
materials are not present in concentrations likely to affect humans, they might well be
at phytotoxic levels, which would limit their agricultural use. However, from the point
of view of health, a very important consideration in agricultural use of wastewater, the
contaminants of greatest concern are the pathogenic micro- and macro-organisms.

Pathogenic viruses, bacteria, protozoa and helminths may be present in raw municipal
wastewater at the levels indicated in Table 4 and will survive in the environment for
long periods, as summarized in Table 5. Pathogenic bacteria will be present in
wastewater at much lower levels than the coliform group of bacteria, which are much
easier to identify and enumerate (as total coliforms/100ml). Escherichia coli are the
most widely adopted indicator of faecal pollution and they can also be isolated and
identified fairly simply, with their numbers usually being given in the form of faecal
coliforms (FC)/100 ml of wastewater.

Table 2: AVERAGE COMPOSITION OF WASTEWATER IN AMMAN, JORDAN

Constituent Concentration mg/l


Dissolved solids (TDS) 1170
Suspended solids 900
Nitrogen (as N) 150
Phosphorus (as P) 25
Alkalinity (as CaCO3) 850
Sulphate (as SO4) 90
BOD5 770
1
COD 1830
1
TOC 220
1
COD is chemical oxygen demand
2
TOC is total organic carbon

Source: Al-Salem (1987)

Table 3: CHEMICAL COMPOSITION OF WASTEWATERS IN ALEXANDRIA


AND GIZA, EGYPT

Constituent Alexandria Giza


Unit Concentration Unit Concentration
EC dS/m 3.10 dS/m 1.7
pH 7.80 7.1
SAR 9.30 2.8
Na2+ me/l 24.60 mg/l 205
Ca2+ me/I 1.50 mg/l 128
Mg me/I 3.20 mg/l 96
+
K me/I 1.80 mg/l 35
-
Cl me/I 62.00 mg/l 320
2-
SO4 me/I 35.00 mg/l 138
CO3 me/I 1.10
-
HCO3 me/I 6.60
+
NH4 mg/l 2.50
NO3 mg/l 10.10
P mg/l 8.50
Mn mg/l 0.20 mg/l 0.7
Cu mg/l 1.10 mg/l 0.4
Zn mg/l 0.80 mg/l 1.4
Source: Abdel-Ghaffar et al. (1988)

Table 4: POSSIBLE LEVELS OF PATHOGENS IN WASTEWATER

Type of Possible concentration per litre in municipal


pathogen wastewater1
Viruses: Enteroviruses2 5000
Bacteria: Pathogenic E. coli3 ?
Salmonella spp. 7000
Shigella spp. 7000
Vibrio cholerae 1000

Protozoa: Entamoeba 4500


histolytica
Helminths: Ascaris 600
Lumbricoides
Hookworms4 32
Schistosoma 1
mansoni
Taenia saginata 10
Trichuris trichiura 120

?
Uncertain
1
Based on 100 lpcd of municipal sewage and 90% inactivation of excreted pathogens
2
Includes polio-, echo- and coxsackieviruses
3
Includes enterotoxigenic, enteroinvasive and enteropathogenic E. coli
4
Anglostoma duedenale and Necator americanus

Source: Feachem et al. (1983)


Table 5: SURVIVAL OF EXCRETED PATHOGENS (at 20-30°C)

Type of pathogen Survival times in days


In faeces, nightsoil In fresh water In the On crops
and sludge and sewage soil
Viruses
Enteroviruses <100 (<20) <120 (<50) <100 <60
(<20) (<15)*
Bacteria
Faecal Coliforms <90 (<50) <60 (<30) <70 (<20) <30 (<15)
Salmonella spp. <60 (<30) <60 (<30) <70 (<20) <30 (<15)
Shigella spp. <30 (<10) <30 (<10) - <10 (<5)
Vibrio cholerae <30 (<5) <30 (<10) <20 (<10) < 5 (<2)
Protozoa <30 (<15) <30 (<15) <20 (<10) <10 (< 2)
Entamoeba <30 (<15) <30 (<15) <20 (<10) <10 (< 2)
histolytica cysts
Helminths Many Many Many <60 (<30)
Ascaris lunbricoides Months Months Months
eggs
* Figures in brackets show the usual survival time.

Source: Feachem et al. (1983)

1.3 Quality parameters of importance in agricultural


use of wastewaters

1.3.1 Parameters of health significance


1.3.2 Parameters of agricultural significance

1.3.1 Parameters of health significance

Organic chemicals usually exist in municipal wastewaters at very low concentrations


and ingestion over prolonged periods would be necessary to produce detrimental
effects on human health. This is not likely to occur with agricultural/aquacultural use
of wastewater, unless cross-connections with potable supplies occur or agricultural
workers are not properly instructed, and can normally be ignored. The principal health
hazards associated with the chemical constituents of wastewaters, therefore, arise
from the contamination of crops or groundwaters. Hillman (1988) has drawn attention
to the particular concern attached to the cumulative poisons, principally heavy metals,
and carcinogens, mainly organic chemicals. World Health Organization guidelines for
drinking water quality (WHO 1984) include limit values for the organic and toxic
substances given in Table 6, based on acceptable daily intakes (ADI). These can be
adopted directly for groundwater protection purposes but, in view of the possible
accumulation of certain toxic elements in plants (for example, cadmium and
selenium) the intake of toxic materials through eating the crops irrigated with
contaminated wastewater must be carefully assessed.

Table 6: ORGANIC AND INORGANIC CONSTITUENTS OF DRINKING


WATER OF HEALTH SIGNIFICANCE

Organic Inorganic
Aldrin and dieldrin Arsenic
Benzene Cadmium
Benzo-a-pyrene Chromium
Carbon tetrachloride Cyanide
Chlordane Fluoride
Chloroform Lead
2,4 D Mercury
DDT Nitrate
1,2 Dichloroethane Selenium
1,1 Dichlorethylene
Heptachlor and heptachlor epoxide
Hexachlorobenzene
Lindane
Methoxychlor
Pentachlorophenol
Tetrachlorethylene
2, 4, 6 Trichloroethylene
Trichlorophenol
Source: WHO (1984)

Pathogenic organisms give rise to the greatest health concern in agricultural use of
wastewaters, yet few epidemological studies have established definitive adverse
health impacts attributable to the practice. Shuval et al. (1985) reported on one of the
earliest evidences connecting agricultural wastewater reuse with the occurrence of
disease (Figure 1). It would appear that in areas of the world where helminthic
diseases caused by Ascaris and Trichuris spp. are endemic in the population and
where raw untreated sewage is used to irrigate salad crops and/or vegetables eaten
uncooked, transmission of these infections is likely to occur through the consumption
of such crops. A study in West Germany (reported by Shuval et al. 1986) provides
additional evidence (Figure 2) to support this hypothesis and further evidence was
also provided by Shuval et al. (1985; 1986) to show that cholera can be tranmitted
through the same channel.

Figure 1: Prevalence of Ascaris-positive stool samples in West Jerusalem


population during various periods, with and without supply of vegetables and
salad crops irrigated with raw wastewater (Gunnerson, Shuval and Arlosoroff
1984)

There is only limited evidence indicating that beef tapeworm (Taenia saginata) can be
transmitted to the population consuming the meat of cattle grazing on wastewater
irrigated fields or fed crops from such fields. However, there is strong evidence from
Melbourne, Australia and from Denmark (reported by Shuval et al. 1985) that cattle
grazing on fields freshly irrigated with raw wastewater, or drinking from raw
wastewater canals or ponds, can become heavily infected with the disease
(cysticerosis).

Indian studies, reported by Shuval et al. (1986), have shown that sewage farm workers
exposed to raw wastewater in areas where Ancylostoma (hookworm) and Ascaris
(nematode) infections are endemic have significantly excess levels of infection with
these two parasites compared with other agricultural workers in similar occupations.
Furthermore, the studies indicated that the intensity of the Ascaris infections (the
number of worms infesting the intestinal tract of an individual) in the sample of
sewage farm workers was very much greater than in the control sample. In the case of
the hookworm infections, the severity of the health effects was a function of the worm
load of individuals, which was found to be related to the degree of exposure and the
length of time of exposure to the hookworm larvae. Sewage farm workers are also
liable to become infected with cholera if practising irrigation with raw wastewater
derived from an urban area in which a cholera epidemic is in progress (Shuval et al.
1985). Morbidity and serological studies on wastewater irrigation workers or
wastewater treatment plant workers occupationally exposed to wastewater directly
and to wastewater aerosols have not been able to demonstrate excess prevalence of
viral diseases.

Figure 2: Wastewater irrigation of vegetables and Ascaris prevalence in


Darmstadt and Berlin, compared with other cities in Germany not practising
wastewater irrigation (Gunnerson, Shuval and Arlosoroff 1984)

No strong evidence has been adduced to suggest that population groups residing near
wastewater treatment plants or wastewater irrigation sites are at greater risk from
pathogens in aerosolized wastewater resulting from aeration processes or sprinkler
irrigation. Shuval et al. (1986) suggest that the high levels of inmunity against most
viruses endemic in the community essentially block environmental transmission by
wastewater irrigation.

Finally, in respect of the health impact of use of wastewater in agriculture, Shuval et


al. (1986) rank pathogenic agents in the order of priority shown in Example 2. They
pointed out that negative health effects were only detected in association with the use
of raw or poorly-settled wastewater, while inconclusive evidence suggested that
appropriate wastewater treatment could provide a high level of health protection.

EXAMPLE 2 - RELATIVE HEALTH IMPACT OF PATHOGENIC AGENTS

High Risk Helminths


(high incidence of excess (Ancylostoma, Ascaris, Trichuris and Taenia)
infection)
Medium Risk Enteric Bacteria
(low incidence of excess (Cholera vibrio, Salmonella typhosa, Shigella and
infection) possibly others)
Low Risk Enteric viruses
(low incidence of excess
infection)

The following microbiological parameters are particularly important from the health
point of view:

i. Indicator Organisms

a. Coliforms and Faecal Coliforms. The Coliform group of bacteria comprises mainly
species of the genera Citrobacter, Enterobacter, Escherichia and Klebsiella and
includes Faecal Coliforms, of which Escherichia coli is the predominant species.
Several of the Coliforms are able to grow outside of the intestine, especially in hot
climates, hence their enumeration is unsuitable as a parameter for monitoring
wastewater reuse systems. The Faecal Coliform test may also include some non-faecal
organisms which can grow at 44°C, so the E. coli count is the most satisfactory
indicator parameter for wastewater use in agriculture.

b. Faecal Streptococci. This group of organisms includes species mainly associated


with animals (Streptococcus bovis and S. equinus), other species with a wider
distribution (e.g. S. faecalis and S. faecium, which occur both in man and in other
animals) as well as two biotypes (S. faecalis var liquefaciens and an a typical S.
faecalis that hydrolyzes starch) which appear to be ubiquitous, occurring in both
polluted and non-polluted environments. The enumeration of Faecal Streptococci in
effluents is a simple routine procedure but has the following limitations: the possible
presence of the non-faecal biotypes as part of the natural microflora on crops may
detract from their utility in assessing the bacterial quality of wastewater irrigated
crops; and the poorer survival of Faecal Streptococci at high than at low temperatures.
Further studies are still warranted on the use of Faecal Streptococci as an indicator in
tropical conditions and especially to compare survival with that of Salmonellae.
c. Clostridium perfringens. This bacterium is an exclusively faecal spore-forming
anaerobe normally used to detect intermittent or previous pollution of water, due to
the prolonged survival of its spores. Although this extended survival is usually
considered to be a disadvantage for normal purposes, it may prove to be very useful in
wastewater reuse studies, as Clostridium perfringens may be found to have survival
characteristics similar to those of viruses or even helminth eggs.

ii. Pathogens

The following pathogenic parameters can only be considered if suitable laboratory


facilities and suitably trained staff are available:

a. Salmonella spp. Several species of Salmonellae may be present in raw sewage from
an urban community in a tropical developing country, including S. typhi (causative
agent for typhoid) and many others. It is estimated (Doran et al. 1977) that a count of
7000 Salmonellae/litre is typical in a tropical urban sewage with similar numbers of
Shigellae, and perhaps 1000 Vibrio cholera/litre. Both Shigella spp and V. cholera are
more rapidly killed in the environment, so if removal of Salmonellae can be achieved,
then the majority of other bacterial pathogens will also have been removed.

b. Enteroviruses. May give rise to severe diseases, such as Poliomyelitis and


Meningitis, or to a range of minor illnesses such as respiratory infections. Although
there is no strong epidemiological evidence for the spread of these diseases via
sewage irrigation systems, there is some risk and it is desirable to know to what extent
viruses are removed by existing and new treatment processes, especially under
tropical conditions. Virus counts can only be undertaken in a dedicated laboratory, as
the cell culture techniques required are very susceptible to bacterial and fungal
contamination.

c. Rotaviruses. These viruses are known to cause gastro-intestinal problems and,


though usually present in lower numbers than enteroviruses in sewage, they are
known to be more persistent, so it is necessary to establish their survival
characteristics relative to enteroviruses and relative to the indicator organisms in
wastewaters. It has been claimed that the removal of viruses in wastewater treatment
occurs in parallel with the removal of suspended solids, as most virus particles are
solids-associated. Hence, the measurement of suspended solids in treated effluents
should be carried out as a matter of routine.

d. Intestinal Nematodes. It is known that nematode infections, in particular from the


roundworm Ascaris lumbricoides, can be spread by effluent reuse practices. The eggs
of A. lumbricoides are fairly large (45-70 µ m x 35-50 µ m) and several techniques
for enumeration of nematodes have been developed (WHO 1989).

1.3.2 Parameters of agricultural significance

The quality of irrigation water is of particular importance in arid zones where


extremes of temperature and low relative humidity result in high rates of evaporation,
with consequent deposition of salt which tends to accumulate in the soil profile. The
physical and mechanical properties of the soil, such as dispersion of particles, stability
of aggregates, soil structure and permeability, are very sensitive to the type of
exchangeable ions present in irrigation water. Thus, when effluent use is being
planned, several factors related to soil properties must be taken into consideration. A
thorough treatise on the subject prepared by Ayers and Westcot is contained in the
FAO Irrigation and Drainage Paper No 29 Rev. 1 (FAO 1985).

Another aspect of agricultural concern is the effect of dissolved solids (TDS) in the
irrigation water on the growth of plants. Dissolved salts increase the osmotic potential
of soil water and an increase in osmotic pressure of the soil solution increases the
amount of energy which plants must expend to take up water from the soil. As a
result, respiration is increased and the growth and yield of most plants decline
progressively as osmotic pressure increases. Although most plants respond to salinity
as a function of the total osmotic potential of soil water, some plants are susceptible to
specific ion toxicity.

Many of the ions which are harmless or even beneficial at relatively low
concentrations may become toxic to plants at high concentration, either through direct
interference with metabolic processes or through indirect effects on other nutrients,
which might be rendered inaccessible. Morishita (1985) has reported that irrigation
with nitrogen-enriched polluted water can supply a considerable excess of nutrient
nitrogen to growing rice plants and can result in a significant yield loss of rice through
lodging, failure to ripen and increased susceptibility to pests and diseases as a result
of over-luxuriant growth. He further reported that non-polluted soil, having around
0.4 and 0.5 ppm cadmium, may produce about 0.08 ppm Cd in brown rice, while only
a little increase up to 0.82, 1.25 or 2.1 ppm of soil Cd has the potential to produce
heavily polluted brown rice with 1.0 ppm Cd.

Important agricultural water quality parameters include a number of specific


properties of water that are relevant in relation to the yield and quality crops,
maintenance of soil productivity and protection of the environment. These parameters
mainly consist of certain physical and chemical characteristics of the water. Table 7
presents a list of some of the important physical and chemical characteristics that are
used in the evaluation of agricultural water quality. The primary wastewater quality
parameters of importance from an agricultural viewpoint are:

Table 7: PARAMETERS USED IN THE EVALUATION OF AGRICULTURAL


WATER QUALITY

Parameters Symbol Unit


Physical
Total dissolved solids TDS mg/l
Electrical conductivity Ecw dS/m1
Temperature T °C
Colour/Turbidity NTU/JTU2
Hardness mg equiv. CaCO3/l
Sediments g/l
Chemical
Acidity/Basicity pH
Type and concentration of anions and cations:
Calcium Ca++ me/l3
Magnesium Mg++ me/l
+
Sodium Na me/l
--
Carbonate CO3 me/l
-
Bicarbonate HCO3 me/l
Chloride Cl- me/l
--
Sulphate SO4 me/l
Sodium adsorption ratio SAR
Boron B mg/l4
Trace metals mg/l
Heavy metals mg/l
Nitrate-Nitrogen NO3-N mg/l
Phosphate Phosphorus PO4-P mg/l
Potassium K mg/l
1
dS/m = deciSiemen/metre in SI Units (equivalent to 1 mmho/cm)
2
NTU/JTU = Nephelometric Turbidity Units/Jackson Turbidity Units
3
me/l = milliequivalent per litre
4
mg/l == milligrams per litre = parts per million (ppm); also,
mg/l ~ 640 x EC in dS/m

Source: Kandiah (1990a)

i. Total Salt Concentration

Total salt concentration (for all practical purposes, the total dissolved solids) is one of
the most important agricultural water quality parameters. This is because the salinity
of the soil water is related to, and often determined by, the salinity of the irrigation
water. Accordingly, plant growth, crop yield and quality of produce are affected by
the total dissolved salts in the irrigation water. Equally, the rate of accumulation of
salts in the soil, or soil salinization, is also directly affected by the salinity of the
irrigation water. Total salt concentration is expressed in milligrams per litre (mg/l) or
parts per million (ppm).

ii. Electrical Conductivity

Electrical conductivity is widely used to indicate the total ionized constituents of


water. It is directly related to the sum of the cations (or anions), as determined
chemically and is closely correlated, in general, with the total salt concentration.
Electrical conductivity is a rapid and reasonably precise determination and values are
always expressed at a standard temperature of 25°C to enable comparison of readings
taken under varying climatic conditions. It should be noted that the electrical
conductivity of solutions increases approximately 2 percent per °C increase in
temperature. In this publication, the symbol ECw, is used to represent the electrical
conductivity of irrigation water and the symbol ECe is used to designate the electrical
conductivity of the soil saturation extract. The unit of electrical conductivity is
deciSiemen per metre (dS/m).

iii. Sodium Adsorption Ratio

Sodium is an unique cation because of its effect on soil. When present in the soil in
exchangeable form, it causes adverse physico-chemical changes in the soil,
particularly to soil structure. It has the ability to disperse soil, when present above a
certain threshold value, relative to the concentration of total dissolved salts.
Dispersion of soils results in reduced infiltration rates of water and air into the soil.
When dried, dispersed soil forms crusts which are hard to till and interfere with
germination and seedling emergence. Irrigation water could be a source of excess
sodium in the soil solution and hence it should be evaluated for this hazard.

The most reliable index of the sodium hazard of irrigation water is the sodium
adsorption ration, SAR. The sodium adsorption ratio is defined by the formula:

(1)

where the ionic concentrations are expressed in me/l.

A nomogram for determining the SAR value of irrigation water is presented in Figure
3 (US Salinity Laboratory 1954). An exchangeable sodium percentage (ESP) scale is
included in the nomogram to estimate the ESP value of the soil that is at equilibrium
with the irrigation water. Using the nomogram, it is possible to estimate the ESP value
of a soil that is at equilibrium with irrigation water of a known SAR value. Under
field conditions, the actual ESP may be slightly higher than the estimated equilibrium
value because the total salt concentration of the soil solution is increased by
evaporation and plant trans-piration, which results in a higher SAR and a corres-
pondingly higher ESP value.

It should also be noted that the SAR from Eq 1 does not take into account changes in
calcium ion concentration in the soil water due to changes in solubility of calcium
resulting from precipitation or dissolution during or following an irrigation. However,
the SAR calculated according to Eq 1 is considered an acceptable evaluation
procedure for most of the irrigation waters encountered in agriculture. If significant
precipitation or dissolution of calcium due to the effect of carbon dioxide (CO2),
bicarbonate (HCO3-) and total salinity (ECw) is suspected, an alternative procedure for
calculating an Adjusted Sodium Adsorption Ratio, SARadj. can be used. The details of
this procedure are reported by Ayers and Westcot (FAO (1985).

iv. Toxic Ions

Irrigation water that contains certain ions at concentrations above threshold values can
cause plant toxicity problems. Toxicity normally results in impaired growth, reduced
yield, changes in the morphology of the plant and even its death. The degree of
damage depends on the crop, its stage of growth, the concentration of the toxic ion,
climate and soil conditions.

The most common phytotoxic ions that may be present in municipal sewage and
treated effluents in concentrations such as to cause toxicity are: boron (B), chloride
(Cl) and sodium (Na). Hence, the concentration of these ions will have to be
determined to assess the suitability of waste-water quality for use in agriculture.

Figure 3: A nomogram for determining sodium adsorption ratio (US Salinity


Laboratory 1954)
v. Trace Elements and Heavy Metals

A number of elements are normally present in relatively low concentrations, usually


less than a few mg/l, in conventional irrigation waters and are called trace elements.
They are not normally included in routine analysis of regular irrigation water, but
attention should be paid to them when using sewage effluents, particularly if
contamination with industrial wastewater discharges is suspected. These include
Aluminium (A1), Beryllium (Be), Cobalt (Co), Fluoride (F), Iron (Fe), Lithium (Li),
Manganese (Mn), Molybdenum (Mo), Selenium (Se), Tin (Sn), Titanium (Ti),
Tungsten (W) and Vanadium (V). Heavy metals are a special group of trace elements
which have been shown to create definite health hazards when taken up by plants.
Under this group are included, Arsenic (As), Cadmium (Cd), Chromium (Cr), Copper
(Cu), Lead (Pb), Mercury (Hg) and Zinc (Zn). These are called heavy metals because
in their metallic form, their densities are greater than 4g/cc.

vi. pH

pH is an indicator of the acidity or basicity of water but is seldom a problem by itself.


The normal pH range for irrigation water is from 6.5 to 8.4; pH values outside this
range are a good warning that the water is abnormal in quality. Normally, pH is a
routine measurement in irrigation water quality assessment.